Period escapism: A Dance to the Music of Time (Part 1 – Spring) by Anthony Powell


As I wrote earlier in the week, I’ve been very drawn to escapist literature at the moment.  Normally, this would mean binge-reading Agatha Christie, but I rather overdid things with the Queen of Crime during autumn (by which I mean, I’ve already re-read every book by her that I own).  Fortunately, lurking in my to-be-read pile was the perfect answer to my problem.

Anthony Powell’s ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’ is dated, elitist, concerned entirely with the problems of privileged white men and yet somehow it managed to utterly charm rather than infuriate me.  It may have been down to the hypnotically complex writing.  The incredibly long and involved sentences (often demanding re-reading) were somehow wonderfully reassuring.  There was no way I would be able to race though these novels as I too often do with period escapism.  Once I’d unpicked all the clauses, the paragraphs revealed themselves as mountains of gentle satire, politely but inexorably mocking everything described.

The main character in these books seems to be the unpopular but obstinately ambitious Widmerpool, a pitiable outsider at school who is nonetheless an object of fascination for Nick Jenkins, the narrator.  After the ‘Stalky and Co’ antics of the schooldays, we next meet Widmerpool in France, where he and Jenkins end up in the same boarding house.  Remaining true to unpopular, obstinate type, Widmerpool insists on them taking advantage of the educational opportunity: ‘In spite of inherent difficulty in making words sound like French, he had acquired a large vocabulary, and could carry on a conversation adequately, provided he could think of something to say; for I found that he had no interest in anything that could not be labelled as in some way important or improving, an approach to conversation that naturally limited its scope.

During the next two books that make up the ‘Spring’ volume of the twelve novel series, Jenkins’ adventures in the adult world are punctuated by encounters with Widmerpool.  Whether falling in love with 1920s ‘bright young things,’ causing social embarrassment at his employer’s country home or giving the worst after-dinner speeches in a novel filled with pontificating bores, Widmerpool is an important if charmless antidote to the laissez faire confidence of most his peers.  I’m already cringing at the though of what could happen to him in the ‘Summer’ trio of novels.

Aside from this clumsy anti-hero, the books luxuriate in a wealth of incidental characters.  The cast of lovers, benefactors, eccentrics, wastrels, millionaires and snobs are worthy of Dickens or Thackeray.  The literary parallels are nearly unending, with university scenes that could have been lifted straight from Evelyn Waugh and musings on memory that deliberately evoke Proust.

I can’t wait to move on to the Summer novels, the sudden heat-wave only makes such reading more appealing!  I’m going to pace myself though.  Handled with care, I reckon on ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’ lasting me all year, at the measured rate of a book a month.  It’s certainly been the perfect period read for 2017 so far and I have every confidence that each volume will only add to my enjoyment.

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17 Responses to Period escapism: A Dance to the Music of Time (Part 1 – Spring) by Anthony Powell

  1. heavenali says:

    I loved reading The Dance to the Music of Time. A few years ago I read one novel a month for a year. Powell’s writing is often challenging but definitely worth it. Hope you enjoy the rest as much as you did the first three. I can see why you see it as escapism, Powell certainly takes us into the heart of another time and society in these novels.

    • He really does! I’m so pleased to hear you enjoyed your own monthly reading of the series. I’m not very good at being patient, but I think it might be worth it in this instance 🙂

  2. Sarah says:

    I made the mistake of starting this series after reading Evelyn Waugh so the elitist public school nonsense and class snobbery grated too much. I’m only one book in, although I’d set myself the challenge of reading the whole series during the year. Your enthusiasm is quite infectious – I shall carry on with Spring and see if I’m now in a better frame of mind to enjoying it!

    • I can easily see why it would grate – I’m quite surprised at myself for not being much more put off by it! I do hope you find the later novels more enjoyable.

  3. Jonathan says:

    I’m glad you’re enjoying it. Iread the series last year, a book a month, and really enjoyed it. Have no fear; the cringeworthiness of Widmerpool continues and there’s a whole load of more fascinating characters.

  4. It is SO bizarre, I have read, with great enjoyment, the first three books 2 or 3 times, and then seem somehow to founder. But you do remind me that if at first you don’t succeed.

    • Well, summer has got to be the perfect time to try the later novels (in any case, I don’t think re-reading the first books multiple times could ever count as lack of success)!

  5. Izzy says:

    What a happy coincidence. I read AQOU last month and absolutely loved it. The second volume, AB’sM is there, on one of my piles, waiting to be picked ! And the Anthony Powell society website is wonderfully helpful and very interesting !

  6. I read them a book a month too, and it seemed to work best for me! Good luck with the rest!

  7. MarinaSofia says:

    I’m also opting for escapism right now, although in my case it is Elizabeth Jane Howard and the Cazalet Chronicles. I think it’s hard if you try to read them all in one go, so very wise to pace yourself.

  8. I keep meaning to read this as a book a month & your review is very encouraging! Maybe as a 2018 reading challenge…

  9. Pingback: Mourning the end of August: ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’ (part 2 – summer) by Anthony Powell | Shoshi's Book Blog

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